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Coghill teachers are the latest to unionize at a New Orleans charter school

Teachers at Mary D. Coghill Charter School have formed a union and are asking the charter school’s board to negotiate a contract on behalf of its teachers and some staff.

The teachers would be represented by United Teachers of New Orleans, which is affiliated with the national union the American Federation of Teachers. Jim Randels, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, said in a press release that 93 percent of Coghill staff have signed a petition asking the board to recognize the union.

In an interview, Randels said, “They can help the school continue to improve if the teachers have more significant and more unified voice.”

Alorea Gilyot, who works with students at Coghill who need extra help, said a union will give students “stability from one school year to the next. The job security we seek will give us peace of mind and allow us to effectively implement the best strategies to instruct our students.”

Coghill is the fifth New Orleans school to unionize in the post-Katrina era; they’re all affiliated with United Teachers of New Orleans.

The local teachers’ union was all but destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. The Orleans Parish School Board laid off 7,600 public school employees in the months after the storm. Then the state took over most of the schools and chartered them to dozens of nonprofits led by volunteer boards, almost all of which employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

A union’s request for board recognition can go one of two ways, as shown by what’s happened at the other four schools.

The boards that run Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School voluntarily recognized, negotiated and signed agreements with their teachers’ unions. Franklin’s negotiations took less than a year; Morris Jeff went through two unions in three years to reach a deal.

Lusher Charter School and International High School of New Orleans, on the other hand, didn’t recognize their unions, forcing the employees to hold elections.

Teachers and aides at International High School voted to have the union represent them. At Lusher, teachers voted against unionization, but a smaller group of employees, mostly made up of teachers’ aides, voted in favor.

Lusher and International High School have fought the union by arguing they are government bodies, and therefore legally exempt from the labor board’s jurisdiction. In February, the National Labor Relations Board rejected that reasoning, ruling the schools are subject to federal labor law.

On March 7, the labor board approved International High School’s offer to settle a complaint filed by two former teachers who alleged they lost their jobs for their organizing activities. They filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the labor board. The school agreed to pay them lost wages.

Coghill’s board president Audrey Woods and Principal Christopher Smith did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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